Let’s start with a few basic facts: Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael, left Dallas a full year before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died after a heart attack.
If you casually follow American politics, these seem like rather uncontroversial statements. But if you’re a hardcore supporter of President Donald Trump, you may have had doubts about some of them in the past.
That’s because Trump pushed conspiracy theories about Obama’s birthplace, Cruz’s father and Scalia’s death for political advantage before and during the 2016 presidential election, and when each theory outlived its usefulness, he moved on. But the damage he inflicted in encouraging this kind of thinking has now seeped into politics in a way that will not be easy to eradicate.
As President, Trump has continued the same pattern of behavior. When MSNBC host Joe Scarborough became more critical of Trump on the air, the President tweeted out a conspiracy theory about him. When a secret recording of Trump discussing paying off former Playboy model Karen McDougal surfaced, the President hinted that it might have been edited to make him look bad.
And facing an investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump has floated multiple conspiracy theories about FBI agents, a Democratic National Committee email server, the Democratic head of a Senate committee investigating Russian meddling and Hillary Clinton’s purported ties to Russia, among other things.
These repeated attacks on the facts have helped lay the groundwork for a massive conspiracy theory propagated by a person or group of people called “QAnon” that’s begun circulating independently of Trump, leaping from online message boards to social media and finally to shirts and signs on attendees at a recent Trump rally in Tampa.
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Research shows that even debunking the obvious ridiculousness of conspiracy theories like the one promoted by QAnon helps spread it, so we’re not going to delve into it here. Instead, we’ll just repeat some basic facts for good measure:
The FBI investigation into potential contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia began in July of 2016 after foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Mueller was appointed special counsel to carry on the investigation after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who then leaked a memo he had written about a suspicious meeting with Trump. Roy Moore lost the Alabama special election because multiple women accused him of pursuing relationships with them when they were minors. George Soros is a Holocaust survivor and donor to Democratic and progressive causes. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are enjoying their retirements from politics. The Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg. The Illuminati are not a thing.
In case you haven’t guessed, the basic outline of the QAnon theory intends to throw doubt on these facts while maintaining support for Trump, who is portrayed as a world-heroic figure secretly masterminding a plan that will be revealed any moment now.
To be fair, Trump has done nothing to encourage this theory other than throw out the occasional remark or tweet that QAnon supporters willfully misread, and there’s no evidence that it’s tied to anyone in his Administration, despite QAnon’s repeated and unproven claims to the contrary. It’s unclear if there’s anything that Trump could do, even if he wanted, to tamp down the speculation, since any denial could just be interpreted by its followers as part of the master plan.
But Trump bears some responsibility for this situation. His repeated endorsement of conspiracy theories have helped push those on the right toward adopting them about his political opponents, while his sometimes inexplicable behavior as President has helped spur a cottage industry on the left selling entirely different ones about Trump himself.
On Twitter, commentators like English professor Seth Abramson, game theory aficionado Eric Garland and British blogger Louise Mensch have unspooled elaborate theories tying the latest developments in the Russia investigation to Trump’s checkered business history and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. On a separate note, law professor Paul Campos took to the pages of New York magazine with a sensationalistic theory about the $1.6 million payout from GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy to Playboy model Shera Bechard, which Trump antagonist Michael Avenatti later hinted at on national TV.
As with the pro-Trump conspiracy theories, the anti-Trump theories attempt to weave a coherent storyline out of the constant flurry of new information around Russian interference and the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia. They often include a similar tendency to imagine that a single mastermind — sometimes Mueller or other federal investigators — is about to blow the whole thing wide open, in this case by indicting or even impeaching the President or revealing some damning information that would seal his fate politically.
Before we go any further, let’s go over some more basic facts for good measure related to these theories:
The process of impeaching a President begins in the House of Representatives, which is currently controlled by Republicans and shows little inclination to do so. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court only considers requests by intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance and does not issue indictments or convene grand juries. It is an open constitutional question whether a President could even be indicted while in office, and there’s little indication that a by-the-book prosecutor like Mueller would take that risk, much less in secret. The marshal of the Supreme Court is basically a bailiff, and plays no role in impeachment.
To be fair, Trump has given his critics plenty of ammunition. His campaign claimed it had no foreign contacts during the election before it was revealed that Papadopoulos and foreign policy adviser Carter Page had done so. The Trump team then argued they were only low-level volunteers before it was revealed that Trump’s son, son-in-law and campaign manager also met with Russians in Trump Tower. They then argued the meeting was about adoptions before it was revealed the Trump campaign was promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. It’s not just conspiracy theorists who wonder what revelation will come next.
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All of this is happening at a time when Americans are more vulnerable to disinformation than ever.
Social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have become immensely powerful parts of the information ecosystem, making them targets for everyone from internet trolls to bad-faith partisan hacks to Russian intelligence agents seeking to sow discord. Americans have become less trusting of national news organizations (including this one) that can play a fact-checker role — Republicans more so than Democrats — and even debunking conspiracy theories has been found to help them spread. As Yale psychologist David Rand has explained, repeated exposure to untrue claims can make people more likely to believe them, even when they’re dubious. Or as Lewis Carroll once wrote, “what I tell you three times is true.”
But at a fundamental level, too many of us simply want to believe conspiracy theories. They help us find meaning in the chaos of the daily news; reassure us that someone is in charge — whether that’s a hero or a villain who could be defeated — rather than an array of impersonal forces; and hold out the promise that whatever we find most intolerable about the present will be eradicated once and for all very soon.
Trump has long benefited from these tendencies. As a private businessman, he used a conspiracy theory about Obama to gain a foothold in politics. As a candidate, he used conspiracy theories to attack his rivals. As President, he’s used them to distract from his own very real controversies. But the weapon has been turned against him, too, and it’s unclear that America will be able to put the genie back in the bottle.
The paranoid style in American politics, as historian Richard Hofstadter once termed it, is now just American politics.
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